Nearly six years after the horrendous oil train derailment and explosion in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic a group of opposition MPs have renewed calls for a public inquiry into the human and environmental disaster that left 47 dead, many more injured and destroyed the centre of that small Quebec town.
Monique Pauzé of the Bloc Quebecois, backed by NDP and Green members, said she was moved to call for re-opening of the case after reading investigative books by Anne-Marie St-Cernay and Bruce Campbell. Transport Minister Marc Garneau dismissed their pleas, accusing the concerned MPs of spreading conspiracy theories by suggesting the need for the probe.“ There is nothing left to discover,” Garneau told reporters last week.
Perhaps the Minister has all of the answers, but anyone who has read Campbell’s The Lac- Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied may well want to better understand how and why such a disaster was allowed to happen and what steps have been taken to ensure something like it does not happen again.
Campbell, the former executive-director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, argues that the derailment and explosion of a 72-car runaway train loaded with volatile crude oil was a direct result of “a long pattern of loosening safety standards in the name of deregulation and cutting red tape.” He traces the trend back to the 1980s, when neoliberal ideology about “unleashing the magic of the marketplace” set in motion misguided rail transport policies – spanning the Mulroney, Chretien-Martin and Harper governments – that included elimination of cabooses and reduction of crew sizes.
Cost cutting and industry self-regulation were accompanied by privatization. In 1995 Canadian National, publicly owned for over a century, was privatized and joined Canadian Pacific in becoming an aggressive, cost-cutting continental player. Both companies put returns to shareholders ahead of serving small towns such as Lac-Mégantic.
Although CP had founded Lac-Mégantic in the late 19th century as it built the eastern leg of its transcontinental line through Quebec and Maine to Saint John, it bailed out a century later. The line through the Eastern Townships ended up in the hands of Ed Burkhardt, a Chicago-based railroader who took cost-cutting to the limit by, among other things, pioneering the single crew concept while running the Wisconsin Central.
Over the next ten years, with Quebec’s pension fund as an unlikely partner, Burkhardt cut staff and maintenance on the renamed Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMAR). The race to the bottom hit its nadir in 2012 when the Harper government gave MMAR permission to operate single-person trains like the one that devastated Lac-Mégantic. As Campbell writes, Transport Canada gave the approval despite objections from its Montreal office and a report from the National Research Council raising “a number of red flags” about the practice.
Oil shipments rise
As rail safety standards were being lowered, oil shipments by rail were showing a vast increase – from 500 tank carloads in 2009 to 160,000 in 2013. A lot of that oil was coming from North Dakota’s Bakken field. Unusually volatile and toxic it was being loaded onto TC-111 tank cars. These “pop cans on wheels,” were better suited to carry products like corn oil, not Bakken oil. The Transportation Safety Board expressed fears they were unsafe for transporting dangerous goods, but Transport Canada, which had the final say, took no action until it was too late.
MMAR began operating with one man crews in July, 2012, without decreasing train length (from 100 to 50) or improving track conditions, as promised to Transport Canada. Tom Harding, the engineer and sole crew on the death train, received only 20 minutes of training. In contrast, regulations in place since 1996 affecting the Quebec, North Shore and Labrador Railway had required 1,000 hours of training for lone engineers operating trains on that line.
Between November 2012 and July 2013 Burkhardt’s barebones operation hauled 67 trains and 3,830 “pop cans on wheels” of Bakken crude for the Irving refinery in Saint John. Normally accustomed to refining crude brought in by tanker, Irving had switched to western producers to take advantage of lower prices.
Nantes, just west of Lac-Mégantic, was where the train parked, awaiting a crew change to continue to New Brunswick. “The lone crew member parked these trains on the main track, unattended…on top of a hill that sloped down steeply toward the heart of Lac-Mégantic eleven kilometers away,” writes Campbell. “It had now become a deadly game of Russian roulette: not if, but when.”
The “when” turned out to be around one in the morning of July 6, 2018. A fire in one of the locomotives led to brake failure and sent 72 cars of Bakken crude rolling into Lac-Mégantic.
Low key response
The aftermath of the largest disaster on Canadian soil since the 1917 Halifax Explosion has been, putting it mildly, anti-climatic. The government moved to fix the most glaring defects – no more unlocked and unattended locomotives, one-person crews and pop can tank cars. But the Transportation Safety Board declined to hold public hearings into the why of the incident. The Board’s initial probe, headed by veteran Atlantic region investigator Don Ross, identified half a dozen factors related to the fateful decision on single person crews, but that key issue was left out of the final report.
MMAR and Irving were charged and fined under several statutes, but only the train engineer and two other employees faced charges under the Criminal Code. After a lengthy trial and nine days of deliberation, a local jury acquitted them on charges of criminal negligence causing death. No top company or government officials testified at the trial.
Ed Burkhardt filed for bankruptcy protection and sold the line through Lac-Mégantic to – sadly predictable – a New York-based hedge fund. And following negotiations conducted behind closed doors Irving and Transport Canada each contributed $75 million to a $460 million settlement for those affected.
The request for deeper investigation is not new. In 2015, when the Lac-Mégantic mayor called for an independent inquiry, the Harper government did not respond. And after the acquittal last year of the three accused, the Quebec National Assembly voted unanimously to ask for one from the Trudeau Liberals.
In rejecting the latest call for a full inquiry, Minister Garneau defended the Safety Board’s investigation and touted the safety benefits of a plan to re-route the rail line away from the town, with the federal and Quebec governments picking up the tab. “I think the Méganticois want to move on now,” Garneau said. “It has been six years, they want to look to the future.”
The rail bypass, should it be completed, would spare Lac-Mégantic further damage. But it’s still a question whether rail safety in general will improve much as a result of that tragedy.
In February this year a runaway CP grain train derailed and crashed in the Rocky Mountains, killing all three crew members. No handbrakes were applied as the train sat for two hours, pointed down a mountain, before rolling away, leaving the tracks and plunging 60 meters into the Kicking Horse River. Several days later, CP changed its operating rules to require use of handbrakes for trains stopped on mountain routes. In the brave new world of rail deregulation, it seems that closing the barn door after the horse is gone remains the operating model.
Bruce Campbell’s The Lac- Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied is published by James Lorimer and Company Ltd., Toronto